President Obama has nominated three extraordinarily well qualified individuals to serve on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. But the Republican Party's intransigence and opposition have turned this into one of the most important obstruction fights we've seen in the last five years.
On Tuesday, September 24, People For the American Way hosted a telebriefing with U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to discuss the matter.
Senator Blumenthal, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, chaired last week’s hearings on the nomination of Nina Pillard to a seat on the D.C. Circuit. He gave a first-hand account of how very qualified she is to serve on this all important court. He explained how important the D.C. Circuit is in the federal judicial system, why it’s important to fill the current vacancies on the court, and how Pillard exemplifies the brilliance and integrity that is so important in filling these vacancies.
Listen to the call for yourself here:
We had a lot of questions from callers about the need to overcome the GOP’s obstruction on these nominees and talked about how important it is for constituents to let their Senators know that it’s time for the obstruction to end.
Thanks to all the PFAW members who the time to join our call. We’ll continue to fight to make sure President Obama's nominees get the simple yes or no votes they deserve.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has for months been single-handedly holding up the nomination of William Thomas, an openly gay African American Miami judge, to a federal district court.
Rubio’s indefinite hold on Thomas’ nomination is one of the most egregious examples yet of Senate Republicans using the obscure “blue slip” procedure to prevent home-state judicial nominees from even having a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Under a Senate custom that has varied over time Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy will not advance a nominees’ consideration -- won’t even hold a hearing, let alone take a vote -- until both of that nominee’s home-state senators return a “blue slip” giving their permission for a nomination to go forward. The blue slip doesn’t indicate a senator’s approval of the nominee – the senator is still free to vote against the nominee and to lobby their fellow senators to do the same. It just means that the nominee can be considered by the Judiciary Committee and then the full Senate. But if just one senator doesn’t return a blue slip, the nomination won’t see the light of day.
Republican senators have been routinely using this tactic of withholding blue slips in order to slow-walk President Obama’s judicial nominees. Currently, five nominees are being held back because one or both senators have refused to return blue slips. And all are women or people of color.
Because the blue slip process is secretive and little-known, senators are often able to get away with holding nominees this way with little public pressure and no public explanation.
Rubio, however, faced pressure from the Florida legal community in recent weeks for his failure to return blue slips for Thomas and another Florida nominee, Brian Davis. The senator finally gave in under pressure and allowed Davis’ nomination to go forward, but is digging in his heels on his blockade of Thomas.
Rubio’s stated reasons for blocking Thomas’ nomination are exceptionally flimsy. He has cited two cases where he claims Thomas gave insufficiently harsh sentences in criminal trials; in one case, even the prosecutor has defended Thomas’ judgment and a local judge has written to Rubio to correct the record. In the other case the senator cites, Judge Thomas sentenced the defendant to death, which Rubio seems to think was insufficiently harsh. It is clear that there is no merit to the senator’s claims. Holding hearings on this nominee would help clarify that, if they were allowed to take place.
The real reason for Rubio’s blockade and his smear of Judge Thomas’ character, writes Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm, is plain and simple “crass Tea Party politics.”
Rubio has stated no compelling reason why Thomas should not have a hearing before the Judiciary Committee, where he can answer any of Rubio’s alleged concerns in the public record.
The Senate today confirmed Justice Department attorney Todd Hughes to a federal appeals court, making him the highest-ranking openly gay federal judge in U.S. history.
President Obama has nominated more openly gay men and women to the federal courts than all his predecessors combined – by a long shot. So far, the Senate has confirmed seven openly gay Obama nominees to federal district courts. Before Obama’s presidency, there had been just one openly gay federal judge, Clinton nominee Deborah Batts.
Two other openly gay district court nominees are still in committee, but one of them –openly gay district court nominee, Florida’s William Thomas – is currently being held up indefinitely by Sen. Marco Rubio.
But today, the Senate’s attention is on Todd Hughes, who will be the newest judge on the Federal Circuit. The Washington Post outlines Hughes’ impressive credentials:
Hughes, who has served as deputy director of the commercial litigation branch of the Justice Department's civil division since 2007, has specialized in the kinds of issues that come up before the bench on which he will soon sit. Unlike the other 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals, the Federal Circuit specializes in a handful of designated issues including international trade, government contracts, patents, trademarks, veterans' benefits, and public safety officers' benefits claims. Hughes could not be reached for a comment.
Geovette Washington, who is the Office of Management and Budget's general counsel and has been friends with Hughes since they attended law school together, described him as "a problem solver" who "can do very complicated constitutional issues," but also brings a degree of pragmatism to cases.
"I have always been amazed by how intelligent he is, but also how practical he is," she said, adding that Hughes is well prepared for the Federal Circuit because he's appeared before it so many times. "He's dug in and done the hard work on those issues."
Georgetown Law professor Nina Pillard, who has had a long and impressive career in law and public service, was approved today by the Senate Judiciary Committee to serve on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Her nomination now goes to the full Senate.
Scores of people and organizations who have worked with Professor Pillard or observed her work have written to the Senate in support of her nomination. Her supporters include:
Alumni of the Virginia Military Institute, which Pillard helped open to women:
VMI gauges its success as an institution by measuring the societal contributions of its alumni. Professor Pillard would rank high for her work to open VMI to female cadets. The case was initiated by the George H.W. Bush Administration and made its way to the Supreme Court during Professor Pillard’s tenure at the office of the Solicitor General of the United States. Professor Pillard drafted the five Supreme Court briefs for the United States and her winning arguments opened VMI’s doors for women who have become leaders in the armed forces, elsewhere in public service, and in the private sector.
Josiah Bunting III, superindent of the Virginia Military Institute when women were first admitted:
During the course of the United States v. Virginia case, I was impressed by Pillard’s fairness and rigor. She respected others’ strongly held views about male-only education at VMI, and I always felt that while we had opposing positions at the time, she comported herself with integrity and understanding — qualities that distinguish the best judges at all levels.
A bipartisan group of former attorneys of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, where Pillard served for two years:
We believe that Ms. Pillard has the skill, character, and objectivity that would make her a superlative judge on the D.C. Circuit. She was a respected leader and trusted advisor in OLC, valued for her fair-minded and meticulous approach to legal questions of all sorts. She is an exemplary nominee whom we wholeheartedly endorse.
Dozens of retired members of the armed forces:
Our experience advocating for the full participation of women in the armed forces has shown us that women, indeed, are suited for rigorous military training, service, and leadership. Our military and our nation benefit when both women and men are able to fully contribute to the defense of our country. We support Professor Pillard’s nomination because her accomplishments and credentials demonstrate that she has the qualifications to be a federal
appellate judge, and because her dedication to principles of equality demonstrates that she will be a great one. We urge you to give her a swift and fair hearing, and vote to approve her nomination.
In her legal advocacy and scholarship, Professor Pillard shows a clear understanding offundamental distinctions between the roles of courts and the political branches, and between law and culture, morality, politics or other important sources ofnorms that guide and constrain human behavior. Throughout her work, she has shown an appreciation ofnuance and respect for opposing viewpoints, grounded in a profound commitment to fair process and fidelity to the law.
In short, Professor Pillard is a talented advocate, a brilliant legal mind, a sensible and moderate problem solver, and a careful thinker who has devoted her career to public service and work for others. We wholeheartedly urge that you confirm her to the D.C. Circuit.
Prominent prosecutors and law enforcement officials:
We urge her confirmation because she is unquestionably eminently qualified, and is a sensible and fairminded lawyer and scholar who has worked extensively with law enforcement in her career. She brings to the bench sensitivity to the compelling need for effective and legitimate law enforcement in the modern era. She stands for fidelity to the law above all, and has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the important, albeit limited, role of the courts in our federal system
I believe that Ms. Pillard has had invaluable work experience that makes her especially well-suited to the bench. While I do not know Ms. Pillard personally, others in the law enforcement community whom I know and respect are supporting her, and their views, combined with her superb experience and qualifications, convince me that she would make an excellent judge, especially on the DC Circuit, which requires someone with such experience and qualifications.
Based on our long and varied professional experience together, I know that Professor Pillard is exceptionally bright, a patient and unbiased listener, and a lawyer of great judgment and unquestioned integrity. We certainly do not agree on the merits of every issue, but Nina has always been fair, reasonable, and sensible in her judgments. She approaches faculty hiring, teaching and curriculum, and matters of faculty governance on their merits, without any ideological agenda--at times even against the tide of academic popularity to defend and respect different views and different types of people.
As we do not share academic specialties, I have not studied Professor Pillard's writings in full, but I know her to be a straight shooter when it comes to law and legal interpretation. She is a fair-minded thinker with enormous respect for the law and for the limited, and essential, role of the federal appellate judge-- qualities that make her well prepared to taken on the work of a D.C.
Circuit judge. I am confident that she would approach the judicial task of applying law to facts in a fair and meticulous manner.
Ms. Pillard’s record of achievement, and unanimous rating of Well-Qualified, the highest rating available, from the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, reflects her significant talents as an appellate litigator and scholar. Her legal career is remarkable for her accomplishments and the breadth and depth of her experience, and her reputation for fairmindedness, collegiality, and dedication to principles of equal justice is well founded.
At an AFL-CIO convention this weekend, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called out the increasingly pro-corporate lean of the U.S. Supreme Court. Politico reports:
On the opening day of the AFL-CIO’s convention, Warren — the highest-profile national Democrat to address the gathering here — warned attendees of a “corporate capture of the federal courts.”
In a speech that voiced a range of widely held frustrations on the left, Warren assailed the court as an instrument of the wealthy that regularly sides with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She cited an academic study that called the current Supreme Court’s five conservative-leaning justices among the “top 10 most pro-corporate justices in half a century.”
“You follow this pro-corporate trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you’ll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Business,” Warren said, drawing murmurs from the crowd.
The study that Warren was referring to is a Minnesota Law Review study that found that the five conservative justices currently on the Supreme Court have sided with corporate interests at a greater rate than most justices since World War II. All five were among the ten most corporate-friendly justices in over 50 years. Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts were the top two.
The Supreme Court majority’s consistent twisting of the law to put the interests of corporations over those of individuals is one of the main characteristics of the Roberts Court, but it is not the only extremely influential court with such a pro-corporate bent. In fact, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to which President Obama has nominated three highly qualified candidates, has been following the same trend, also because of the influence of judges named by George W. Bush. This is the court whose ultra-conservative justices declared that cigarette label warning requirements violate the free speech rights of tobacco companies and that requiring that employers inform employees of their right to unionize violates the free speech rights of the corporations.
While there is not currently a vacancy at the Supreme Court that could affect its balance, there are three at the DC Circuit. That is why Senate Republicans are working so hard to keep them empty.
In June 2013, President Obama nominated three extremely well-qualified people to fill the three vacancies on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, a court that has been deemed “the second most important in the United States.” As the nominees - appellate attorney Patricia Millet, Georgetown law professor and appellate advocate Cornelia “Nina” Pillard, and D.C. District Court judge and former public defender Robert Wilkins - make their way out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and towards the Senate floor, Senate Republicans are threatening to ramp up their partisan gridlock by blocking votes on any of them.
The far right has accused the president of trying to “pack” the courts just for making nominations to existing vacancies, as the Constitution calls for. Senate Republicans have even introduced a bill to eliminate the three judgeships, just to keep President Obama from filling them.
In anticipation of the fight we expect to see this fall, People For the American Way has drafted an activist toolkit for concerned citizens across the United States who understand the importance of the courts, and who know we must stand up against Republican obstruction. Check it out here: